READINGS/ Acts 4:1-35; 1 Thess 5:1-11; Tim 1:1-14
Let’s pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts, be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer, Amen.
This is a story of one woman.
It’s a cold, December day, 1955; a day that begins like any other.
She gets up, has breakfast, and heads off to her job working as a seamstress.
The hours are long, the work is hard, and she already knows
just how tired she’ll feel by finishing time.
Life has settled in to a routine, and she generally knows what to expect from each day.
Arriving at work, she settles down to the task at hand,
unaware that this day will be different, and that, by day’s end,
her name will go down in history.
Work done, she waits for the bus.
When it arrives the door opens, and she makes her way on board,
carefully avoiding the seats to the front of the bus.
Finding a seat in the middle, the row immediately behind the front section,
she settles in for the ride home.
It’s a busy bus.
At the next stop more passengers get on, filling up all the seats at the front.
The driver then orders those passengers sitting in the middle row to stand,
to allow another passenger to sit.
She has probably lost track of how often this has happened over the years,
and she has always complied like so many others, but today, something inside her reacts;
she breaks the pattern
and breaks the law:
she refuses to give her seat up to the man.
While her day has been long, and the work hard, she will later say:
‘the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.’
Her name is Rosa Parks, and she’s just defied one of Alabama’s segregation laws –
a law which requires black passengers to defer to any white person
who needs a seat by giving up their own.
She is subsequently arrested, which provokes prolonged protests
by the black community, and a boycott of public buses that will last for 381 days –
the nation’s first large-scale demonstration against segregation…
which, in turn, spurs on others around the country to non-violent protest.
It propels a young Baptist minister by the name of Martin Luther King Jr
to the forefront of the movement,
who is himself spurred on by a strong sense of God’s justice and the power of God’s Spirit.
This one woman’s action and the subsequent actions of others,
will eventually lead to the Civil Rights Act of 1964,
and the Voting Rights Act of 1965,
bringing in a social revolution.
Parks will later observe:
‘I have learned over the years that when one's mind is made up, this diminishes fear;
knowing what must be done does away with fear.’
Another story: this time of two men.
Over several years, along with other companions, they have been in search of a life less ordinary;
a life more meaningful,
a life that goes beyond the shallows and heads out into the deep;
a spiritual quest.
They want to understand the mysteries of life;
want to know God a little more.
And so, they’ve travelled many miles with their teacher,
listening and watching and eating and laughing with him.
They have heard him turn over traditional understandings of how things are done:
of leaders who should act as servants;
of loving one’s neighbours…but also, of loving one’s enemies.
He has taught them that those counted the least in society are those especially loved by God;
and, of true power being found in humility and in honest vulnerability.
They have watched him do amazing things;
and they have watched him being taken away by the powers and authorities of the day
to be tortured and executed as a political criminal.
But they have also seen beyond his death, to his resurrection…
and, later, have experienced his presence through the power of his Spirit –
living among them,
living in and through them.
In the days that have followed the coming of God’s Spirit,
they have found new strength,
sudden unexpected courage,
their faith growing,
their love for one another growing,
and more and more people joining them: attracted by their message, both lived and spoken.
One afternoon, these two men – Peter and John – are heading to the temple for prayer.
As they approach the temple, they see a man being carried to one of the temple gates.
Every day the man is put there –
put there because he’s unable to get there under his own steam.
He has never known a day of freely taking himself anywhere,
always relying on others to take him where he needs to go.
Every day, having been placed by the gate, he spends his time begging, his way of survival.
As Peter and John walk by, he asks them for money, not even really looking at them.
Peter asks him to look at them.
And he does so, expectantly: surely these men will give him something.
And so they do, but not what he’s expecting:
Peter calls on the name of Jesus, asks the man to walk.
He takes the beggar by the hand, helping him up from the place
where he’s sat and begged for…how long?
Energy and strength course through his feet and ankles,
he jumps to his feet, and then accompanies them into the temple –
walking and leaping and praising God…and everyone there is amazed.
People come running from around the temple to see what’s happened.
And, with echoes of another time when Jesus had taught in Solomon’s Colonnade,
now Peter tells the assembled crowd about Jesus,
about repentance, restoration, and resurrection.
It’s at this point, that we come to our reading from Acts, this morning.
In the aftermath of the healing of the crippled beggar, and the preaching of the good news of Jesus,
the priests, Saducees, and the captain of the temple guard come along.
Under whose authority are these two men teaching?
And, worse than that: why do they have to keep mentioning that troublemaker, Jesus?
For their troubles, Peter and John find themselves arrested and spend the night in jail.
Despite the arrest, another great number of people make professions of faith.
The next day, Peter and John are put on trial before the religious authorities,
who really don’t know what to do with them at all.
In the end, after telling them to not talk about Jesus any more,
and uttering a few threats, they are released.
This, despite Peter and John’s statement:
‘how can we NOT speak about what we’ve seen and heard?’
They go home to find their friends – fellow followers of Jesus, and rejoice.
The courage given through the power of the Holy Spirit spurs them on to greater acts of love:
they are united in their love of God and one another –
and this love is shown in their care for each other, and generosity towards one another:
none are in need,
and all continue to tell those around them of the story of Jesus’ resurrection.
Their numbers continue to grow as people watch themand are moved by
the love shown within God’s community.
Later, in the new communities spreading around the known world,
the Apostle Paul will remind the new believers of God’s power –
to those who live in Thessalonica –
that they are sons and daughters of the light:
darkness has been defeated;
and that they are to live together as one in God.
And he’ll write to his young friend Timothy –
encouraging him to boldness;
reminding him that God did not give us a spirit of timidity,
but a spirit of power, of love, of self-discipline…
‘Don’t be ashamed to testify about our Lord’, he says to Timothy…
‘Jesus is the one who has destroyed death who has brought life…’ he says.
You can almost hear him saying:
‘It’s a great story, don’t be afraid to share it…’
It’s the story that, through the power of the Spirit, Peter and John were bold enough
to tell even in the midst of the temple, and, to continue to tell even after being arrested:
‘how could we not tell it,’ they say.
One more story:
the story of a small, rural community of faith.
Sometimes, they feel a little invisible, away from the centre of things,
perhaps, even feel a little ignored by the wider community of faith in which they’re nestled.
Sometimes they wonder how long they’ll be able to continue
going on as a community of faith…
will it see them out…
will it go beyond that?
Sometimes, they wonder about the communities in which they live and work –
they wonder why others don’t come along and join with them on a Sunday;
and, sometimes, they don’t have much time for wondering –
life seems to take over and get a little all-consuming:
so many different balls to juggle and to prioritise.
And yet, as they can, that small community of faith gathers together to worship.
As the seasons of the church year cycle past, they hear again the old stories:
of the God who loves them;
of the God who, in that love, became like them;
of the God who, in that love, suffered and died for them and rose again –
a promise of death conquered, and of a hope that goes beyond time and into eternity;
of the God who, rather than leave them alone, sent the Spirit –
of power, of love, of peace,
of unity and diversity,
the great encourager, and courage-giver,
so that, in their lives,
in their words,
they might find their own way to share the story that communities of faith
have shared down through the ages.
It is the same God and the same Spirit who gave ordinary men like
Peter and John the courage to speak of new life, and resurrection.
It is the same God, and the same Spirit who was at work in the lives
of ordinary people like Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. –
who, in understanding God’s love, saw that same love as being for all people,
for God does not have a colour bar but offers the gift of new life for all.
It is the same God and the same Spirit who is at work in ordinary people like us,
as we open ourselves to God’s Spirit,
as we listen to God’s calling on our lives,
and, having done so,
to live the message of God’s love in such a way that one by one,
God’s love changes and transforms the world.
The writer, Marianne Williamson, stated that:
‘In every community, there is work to be done.
In every nation, there are wounds to heal.
In every heart, there is the power to do it.’
As God’s people, we have within us God’s Spirit of power and love –
there’s work for us to do:
let’s go do it, and in doing so, tell, and live, God’s great story.